After an Impressive Run, Cisco Stock Is Starting to Cool Off

So far 2019 has been spectacular for Cisco Systems (NASDAQ:CSCO). Cisco stock has risen 30% this year. That’s the best performance in the Dow Jones Industrial Average, narrowly ahead of Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL). Among the 27 stocks with a market capitalization over $200 billion, only Facebook (NASDAQ:FB) has outpaced CSCO stock YTD.

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The optimism makes some sense. Cisco’s legacy networking business long has struggled with growth, but the company is shifting into areas of better growth. It’s becoming more of a security play, giving it exposure to that hot sector. Growing recurring revenue from increasing software sales add to the case, and 5G offers yet another catalyst for Cisco stock.

Again, the optimism here makes some sense. Indeed, I laid out the potential bull case for CSCO ahead of its fiscal first quarter report. But with Cisco stock up 25%+ since then, the concern is that even that bull case now is priced in.

The Cisco Stock Rally

From a broad standpoint, there are four key drivers of the big gains in Cisco stock. First, the company’s Catalyst 9000 switches have launched well, driving double-digit revenue increases. For a company that has struggled to increase sales (fiscal 2018 revenue was basically equal to FY16 levels) the new product is welcome, to say the least.

Second, Cisco is adding more software to its legacy hardware products, including the Catalyst switches. That shift improves margins and adds the recurring revenue tech investors seek these days. It also allows Cisco to continue to monetize its hardware after installation, instead of receiving just a one-time sale.

Third, the company continues to move into security. Like more focused players like Palo Alto Networks (NYSE:PANW), here, too, Cisco has built out its software offering instead of focusing on just hardware. Cisco has integrated its SD-WAN products with cloud-based software, which drove double-digit growth in the second quarter.

Finally, 5G is on the way, and that represents a real profit driver going forward. The adoption of that technology should help revenue, but Cisco already is investing in its development at the moment, meaning incremental costs should be lower.

Obviously, there are other factors at play; this is a company that generates revenue of roughly $50 billion a year. These areas are where Cisco has an edge and an opportunity to accelerate revenue growth. Smaller rival Juniper Networks (NYSE:JNPR) hasn’t had the same success, and while CSCO stock has soared, JNPR has been flat for basically four years now. Cisco’s moves explain much of the outperformance of its stock.

The Concerns with CSCO Stock

In sum, the moves make Cisco sound a bit like Microsoft (NASDAQ:MSFT) earlier this decade. Microsoft had similar growth questions, and relied on a legacy market (personal computers) that seemed to have little room for growth.

Then new businesses like its Azure cloud platform, a go-to-market change for Office and Windows, and smaller efforts in gaming and hardware have dramatically changed the story. MSFT has more than quadrupled since 2013, thanks to earnings growth and multiple expansion.

That said, there are two concerns here. The first is whether the Microsoft model actually is in play here. While there are growth opportunities going forward (perhaps most notably in 5G) the legacy business still is flat, if not shrinking. Security was just 6% of revenue in fiscal 2018, according to figures from the 10-K. Cisco itself is guiding for just 4-6% revenue growth in the third quarter.

Growth might be improving, but it’s not exactly torrid and certainly not yet. Meanwhile, Cisco stock’s big rise has notably changed its valuation. As recently as last year, CSCO was pricing in basically zero growth.

Now, Cisco stock trades at over 18x FY19 consensus EPS. Even with the Street projecting 10% growth in FY20, that’s not a hugely attractive multiple. It suggests, at the least, that Cisco’s recent success will continue for years to come. And it’s worth noting that Cisco stock now has outrun the average analyst target.

To be sure, that doesn’t mean CSCO’s run is definitely over or that the stock is a sell. Strong Q3 earnings, likely due next month, can lead those estimates and price targets up. The advent of 5G probably starts contributing next year, and its growth won’t end any time soon.

Still, the upside looks thinner, and Cisco really can’t stumble back at a high-teen P/E multiple. Investors sticking with CSCO at this price had better be sure the transformation will continue.

As of this writing, Vince Martin has no positions in any securities mentioned.

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